Traditional Japanese knives have been hand-made by skilled artisans for centuries in areas of Japan like Sakai and Seki City. Their culture produces and uses knives that can be quite different than ours here in the Western part of the world. However, Americans are growing more fond of certain types of Japanese knives and finding that they are quite useful for certain tasks in the kitchen.
In this digital age we live in, it’s much more likely that the average home chef will run into pictures or stories of a traditional Japanese knife. Beyond that, with the invent of online shopping and the global aspect of it, it’s exponentially easier to purchase them from the comfort of your own home.
There are many different types of traditional Japanese kitchen knives. Here’s a larger list with pictures to give you an idea, but we’ll focus just on the more popular ones in our discussion below.
Japanese Knife Types
The Deba is a knife often used in the butchery of whole fish in Japan. Its blade is thick and heavy duty for the tough tasks given to it. A Japanese Deba knife is most often called upon when cutting through the head and bones of a whole fish during the filleting process, but it can be used on meat as well.
The Gyuto knife is Japan’s version of the Western chefs knife. A prefect all-purpose knife for numerous tasks around the kitchen. Unlike the Santoku knife, the Gyuto has a slightly curved blade so it can be used in more of a rocking motion. Gyuto knives are very versatile and can be used for chopping meat or vegetables as well as cutting fish.
The Kiritsuke knife is quite unique looking with its angled tip. Some of the longer ones can almost look like a short sword! Kiritsuke knives do a great job of slicing cooked meat. They are well-known for being difficult to use and thus, in traditional Japanese culture, only executive chefs in a restaurant are allowed to used it.
The Japanese Nakiri knife is popular among home chefs for precise cuts like the julienne for vegetables. They also work well for harder product with thick skins like potatoes and squash. Nakiri knives are almost a Western twist on the Usuba knife. It has a double bevel, making it easier for home chefs and beginners than the more complex Usuba.
A Petty knife is a small utility or paring knife that’s used by Japanese chefs for the delicate work on small fruits and vegetables. Very similar to a Western paring knife, a petty can be used for both styling fruits in a presentation manner or as a utility knife for preparing meals. This makes the petty very multipurpose and important to have around.
Santoku knives are used for all sorts of tasks around the kitchen. They are used to cut meat, fish, and vegetables. They have a rounded tip and flat blade so they can be used more in a chopping motion than a rocking motion like the Western chef’s knife. Like other Japanese knives, the santoku knives have strong, thin blades.
A Sujihiki knife is made with a long thin blade, typically with a double bevel. Similar to a Western slicing knife, but with a thinner, harder blade that requires less sharpening. The edge angle is also sharper, which is made possible because of the harder Japanese steel. This slicer makes quick work of meat, fish, and poultry.
The Usuba knife is used for intricate vegetable cutting, like julienne and dicing. They are single-bevel and thus take more skill to use than a Nakiri (Nakiri vs Usuba). But, once perfected, they can make thinly-sliced magical cuts. Most have a squared tip, but Usuba knives from the Kansai region are rounded at the tip.
The Yanagiba knife is very long, very sharp, and very hard. It’s a high-end knife popular among sashimi chefs as it makes the best sushi knife. Their length allows them to slice through almost anything with a single, long slice rather than a back and forth motion. This, paired with a traditional single-bevel, give the user a very clean looking cut.
Japanese Knife Characteristics
There are a few features of Japanese knives that make them unique from Western knives. Reasons for the distinction range from traditional knife making processes to the difference and variety in foods from that region of the world. Not only are the foods different, but how they’re prepared contrast our styles here in the West.
Steels & Hardness
The Japanese people use harder steels with higher carbon content that most of the rest of the world. There are pros and cons to this however. The benefits of this are increase blade retention, meaning less sharpening. However, this also means their blades are more brittle and can chip under certain conditions if not used properly. Also the higher carbon content means the possibility of rust or corrosion if not kept clean and dry immediately after use.
Asian knives tend to have sharper angles than Western knives. This is made possible by the harder steels mentioned above. In addition, it’s not uncommon to see single-bevel knives in Japan. This is rare in the West.
Their blades are thinner, in part because of the sharper angles, but also because Japanese Chefs do more finesse work with their knives. Also, their diets consist more of fish and poultry and less of beef and other tough meats with large bones.
Most of the time, you’ll see traditional Japanese knives using a flat blade. This assists them in the chopping motion that they use often in their cooking, whereas American chefs like to use more of a rocking motion with a curved blade.